Holy dip and a few million people
Maha Kumbh Mela
That would be what one thinks of the Kumbh Mela from the news reports that one gets before visiting it. But on visiting it, I found a whole new dimension to things: primarily driven by the perspectives on offer, but also because one only gets to experience a slice of the crowd at best and not the full throng.
The Triveni Sangam area, where the Mela is hosted, covers river banks on both sides while including the riverbed on one – the riverbed fills up when the rivers are in spate during the monsoon and given all that, the Mela area is huge at approximately 50 sq km.
Reaching Allahabad outskirts, one faces traffic restrictions because of the Kumbh. It is best to reach the town via alternate routes (usually by asking local people – or with their help, as we did). Part of that is also the Sangam (confluence). There are many ways to visit Allahabad but the road – either from Lucknow or Varanasi – is most convenient, as both have excellent train and air connectivity and are not too far from Allahabad (210 and 120 km, respectively).
I first entered the Mela early evening on a regular Kumbh day (not one of the six important bathing days), and what struck me was the general lack of pushing and jostling given the numbers. I have seen crowds in cricket matches and movie halls with probably a fraction of the number but with far more pushing and jostling. All through the Kumbh Mela, I was pleasantly surprised by the well-mannered crowd – no matter what the number (for example, on Magh Poornima there were 10 million devotees thronging the Sangam, on Mauni Amaavasya about 30 million). Not once was there pushing, jostling or need of police intervention in crowd control. I saw people carrying loads on their shoulders and heads and still walking peacefully, giving way if required. Having experienced crowds in cities and elsewhere, this was a very pleasant surprise. One got to see interesting ideas like people keeping their “flock” together with everyone holding onto one rope!
Not staying in the Mela area, but in Civil Lines of Allahabad (the city has five cantonments and is divided into various lines – police, civil, etc.) and travelling through to the Mela area daily, I got to see the kind of near-upheaval that Allahabad experiences during the months of the Kumbh. There was a steady stream of people walking out of and into railway stations – most of them visitors were who had come to bathe in the Triveni Sangam and were heading back. I also saw the huge police presence in Allahabad and also the lack of facilities for the police – almost every major ground was taken over by tents to provide for police accommodation – in addition to the tents that were put up in the Mela area. It was like a regular city dotted with tents. There were also tents under flyovers. Our guardians surely need better facilities!
The station exits and the main entrance from the city-side (civil lines, etc.) is generally choc-a-bloc and on slower days Allahabad city station has little or no transport for people to reach the Triveni Sangam area.
I spent the next four days visiting the Sangam area, chatting up people and photographing – both in the morning and evening. In the mornings, there was generally a rush, with people getting of trains and rushing to the Kumbh area, to a few hawkers and a lot of beggars (unlike the evenings). Also, the rush of people to the Sangam area makes it look as if a million ants were heading there together! On special bathing days the administration only allows foot traffic on roads heading to the Sangam (barring military, police and VIP vehicles) and one has to walk about at least 4 km to enter the Mela area and some more to get to the Sangam. While trains were diverted to different stations within Allahabad, it didn’t reduce the number of people thronging the roads and heading to the Mela area at five in the morning. Travellers – old, young and middle aged – were all travelling with their luggage to the area. There are hardly any refreshments or rest areas on that stretch until one enters the Mela area, something maybe for the administration can improve.